Experts say the threat of bird flu is low despite the number of deaths in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Responding to the death of an 11-year-old Cambodian girl who contracted bird flu, a top World Health Organization official said Friday that the virus’ recent global spread and human infections are “worrying.”

Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO director of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention, said the UN agency was “in close contact with the Cambodian authorities to learn more about the outbreak.”

Ahead of the Geneva meeting on influenza vaccines, Briand described the global situation with the virus as “concerning, given the widespread distribution of the virus among birds worldwide and the increasing number of cases in mammals, including humans.”

“WHO takes the risk of this virus seriously and calls for increased vigilance from all countries,” he said.

Independent experts have also expressed concern about the bird flu wave that has spread across much of the world since late 2021 and poses a potential public health risk.

The Cambodian girl died in a village in the southeastern province of Prey Veng in the capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday, shortly after tests confirmed she had H5N1 bird flu, Cambodia’s health ministry said. He became ill on February 16, and when his condition worsened, he was admitted to hospital with a fever of 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit), a cough and a sore throat.

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The girl’s father tested positive for the virus, but did not show any serious symptoms, the health authorities announced on Friday.

Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, is usually spread between sick poultry, but sometimes it can also spread from poultry to humans. The recent detection of infections in a number of mammals, including a large mink farm in Spain, has raised concerns among experts that the virus could spread more easily between humans and potentially trigger an epidemic.

Ly Sovann, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, told The Associated Press that the Cambodian father’s case is under investigation and it is not yet known how he became infected. He was isolated at the local district hospital for observation and treatment.

The ministry team took samples from 12 people from the dead girl’s village who were known to have had direct contact with her, and laboratory tests on Friday confirmed that only her father was infected.

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Health professionals have expressed concern over a wave of bird flu that has spread worldwide over the past year and a half, but the current risk to humans is considered low.

“In recent months and years, there has been a huge global challenge for wild and domestic birds with the current H5N1 bird flu virus, which will expose many people; however, what is remarkable is how few people have been infected,” Professor James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge in England, said by email.

“As tragic as this case in Cambodia is, we expect there will be clinical cases with such widespread infection. Obviously, the virus needs careful monitoring and surveillance to make sure it hasn’t mutated or recombined, but the cases The number of human cases has not increased significantly, and this single case alone does not indicate a sudden change in the global situation,” added Wood.

According to the World Health Organization, there were 56 cases of bird flu in Cambodia between 2003 and 2014, and 37 of those cases were fatal. Worldwide, approximately 870 human infections and 457 deaths have been reported to the WHO in 21 countries, representing a case fatality rate of 53%. But the pace has slowed, with about 170 infections and 50 deaths in the past seven years. In the vast majority of cases, the infected caught it directly from infected birds.

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“Between 2005 and 2020, 246 million poultry died or were destroyed due to avian influenza,” says the World Organization for Animal Health.

“Since October 2021, an unprecedented number of outbreaks have been reported in several regions of the world, reaching new geographic areas and having a devastating impact on animal health and welfare,” the Paris-based agency said on its website.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that the current H5N1 outbreak is mostly an animal health problem.

“However, people should avoid direct and close contact with sick or dead wild birds, poultry and wildlife,” it warns on its website. “People should not consume raw or undercooked poultry or poultry products, including raw eggs. Properly cooked consumption. poultry, poultry products and eggs are safe.”


Associated Press writer Peck reported from Bangkok.